Triplogue - Israel and the West Bank

(also see: Gallery, "Zealot City" Gallery, "Jerusalem Syndrome" Gallery)

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With Declan on the Nissos Kypros

Guns and burgers in suburban Haifa

2 November, Haifa to Akko, 25km (a)

For a long time now, I’ve been anticipating our arrival in the Middle East with a mixture of excitement and dread. Media-driven fears of danger, as well as countless people’s warnings to us contributed to the fear part of this equation. And the bomb threat hadn’t helped any, either.

Was it an augury or just an odd coincidence that it corresponded with our first foray into the Wonderful World of Islam? In either case, it happened over a month ago, on our way to Istanbul. Our Greek taxi driver, driving us to Athens airport, gave us the usual spiel: "Hwhy hyou go to Turkey? There is nothing to see there, and the people are terrible." I told him we were meeting my family there, which placated him somewhat. After the usual airport hassles we were on a bus leading us to our Turkish Airlines plane. Without any warning, the bus came to a sudden halt, screeched its tires as it turned around, and dumped us back at the gate, where we were rejoined by the first busload of passengers, who had been evacuated from the plane. No one would tell us what was going on for six hours, during which time we were herded from one holding area to another. The departure time listed on the electronic board kept moving further and further into the future. We began to wonder if we should have taken the train to Istanbul.

Finally we were assigned another departure gate. Just as the airline staff began to load us into buses, the reason for the delay was disclosed: "Ladies and gentlemen, we apologize for this delay, but at 9:30 this morning a bomb threat was called in and we had to check the aircraft. We hope you’ll understand and wish you a pleasant flight." Fred and I looked at each other with shocked expressions. Why hadn’t they told us it was a bomb in the first place? --to keep butts in the seats? The happy chatter surrounding us on our first trip out to the plane was replaced with a nervous silence. The bus went much further this time, out to a far-flung area of the airport full of uniformed men with guns, fire trucks and ambulances. All in all, a sobering sight.

Aboard, the atmosphere remained palpably tense, especially at take-off. A couple across the aisle from us –Californians on their way to Turkey to celebrate their anniversary—clung to each other during the whole flight. A young British archeologist sitting next to us distracted us with photos of her last trip to Turkey. I looked out the window, searching for familiar geographical features. The Dardenelles soon opened to the Sea of Marmara. Then we were descending, thankful for the flight’s brevity. When the plane landed, many of the passengers burst into spontaneous applause. Flight 228 to hell had made it in one piece. But the incident made me wary of Middle Eastern politics and its often deadly ramifications…

Fortunately, no one hijacked the Nissos Kypros on our journey from Cyprus to Haifa. At immigrations in Limassol, we met an English cyclist called Declan and two young Canadians, Andrey and Erin. The guy stamping Fred’s passport recognized him from the scene he made the week before. I couldn’t help but wonder if Fred Felman had become somewhat of a legend on the old vessel.

Once aboard, we were delighted to find ourselves upgraded to a better cabin (perhaps the staff was afraid of Fred), but left it immediately in search of Declan. He had been cycling in Jordan and Israel and I was anxious to hear what he had to say about it.

Tall and blond, Declan has a very calm air to him, like a Buddhist monk or something. He was traveling alone with astonishingly little gear, all of which fit into a small shoulder bag. Out of this he pulled a couple of maps, which I fell upon like a vulture. I didn’t have any maps of the Middle East, and had no idea of a route. Declan showed us where he’d been, up the King’s Highway in Jordan, which included "hills where I really thought I was going to die", and on into Israel. He recommended the road along the Dead Sea and told us to avoid Nazareth, a town he dismissed in his northern England accent as "a doomp."

After this debriefing, I accepted Erin and Andrey’s invitation to share their bottle of vodka out on deck, where the air was still deliciously balmy. Both of them young Canadians living in London, they had planned on flying to Dubrovnik, but missed their plane at Gatwick, where they changed their plans entirely once they found a cheap flight to Cyprus. I admired their spontaneity and their American-I-mean-North-American-style candor. Erin told us how she had saved a woman who had tried to hang herself from a tree back in Toronto, and Andre showed us his groovy little digital camera and told us of his own travel web site, Declan and Fred came along and helped us polish off the bottle, and we all talked into the wee hours.

The ship wasn’t supposed to arrive until past eight, but I found myself being roused at the crack of dawn. "We’re there," said Fred, "we’re in Haifa." My brain filled with fuzz, I hauled my ass out of my bunk into the exhaust-filled car deck, where our bikes had spent the night. Rolling down the plank, we were directed to customs and security check by one of those off-puttingly youthful female security officers, cute as buttons but deadly serious. Yes, we were in Israel, all right.

Declan was the only person we saw at first in the holding area. He told us that they’d taken his bike and all of his stuff, and that we’d soon be subjected to similar indignities. After a long wait, another Israeli teenybopper strode up to us, asked a few questions, and let us proceed to immigration. Declan was beside himself. How come he had to wait and we didn’t? He pointed to our saddles and asked the security babe how she’d like to sit on that for five weeks like he had. Fred and I figured that this sort of tactic wasn’t going to get him through any more quickly. While waiting for the immigrations dude to peruse our passports, Fred told me how he’d "played the Jew card" with the security girl while I was in the toilet, thereby facilitating our entrance into the Jewish State. When she asked him if he had any family here, he answered, "probably," thus earning instant security clearance. As Fred recounted this tale, the terrifying "thump" of a passport stamp brought us back into the present tense. They had stamped Fred’s passport with the dreaded Israeli visa. I resigned myself to the fact that this simplified my task of creating an itinerary for us. "I guess that means we won’t be going to Syria now," I said.

Haifa was just waking up as we pedaled along the gritty port, dazed and hungry. We stopped in a sleazy little kiosk for breakfast. The place was run by friendly Moroccans who spoke to us in French and insisted we use their kitchen to change into our biking gear. When I had to change my tire, the man wouldn’t let me leave until I had thoroughly scrubbed my hands. I found myself liking his almost parental concern. We had obviously left the hostility of the Greeks far behind us…

After several kilometers of pumping through one of the uglier industrial wastelands I’ve ever laid eyes upon, another bike shot down from above (Haifa is organized vertically up a mountain called Karmel) and into the rightmost lane in front of us. Curious to see who else would brave such a dreadful road, we caught up with him for a butt-sniff, and learned he was on his way to his furniture shop, just down the road. Would we like to join him for a cup of coffee?

While the coffee never appeared (I am sensitive to such things) Ami was very informative on possible routes through the Holy Land, though more than a little biased. "Don’t take that road," he would say, "it goes through Arab villages." He also advised us strongly against cycling through Jordan or the West Bank. When we told him we were on our way to Akko, an Arab town, he cringed. Ami did invite us to a biking event along the Dead Sea, however, and he told me where to find a decent map, in a nearby mall that was the scariest place I’ve been this side of Atlanta.

The road to Akko was relentlessly hideous, choked with truck exhaust and lined with strip malls and chemical plants. It made me thankful that I wasn’t born in suburban Israel, though we both appreciated the first "Burger King" sign we’d seen in a long time, a comforting slice of Americana in the scariness of the Middle East.

Akko is one of the more ancient ports in the world, and as atmospheric a place as our bikes have taken us. Once we penetrated its ancient walls it was as if we’d stepped through a time warp. The ages-old souk was teeming with life, full of lurid colors, unfamiliar smells and exotically-clad locals chattering loudly in Arabic to compete with the call of the muezzin. We had to stop for a few moments to soak it all in.

Finding a place was easy enough. Our host Anwar was friendly and accommodating. Leaving the bikes in the dining area was "no problem" –a refreshing attitude after Cyprus. The remainder of the day was spent playing tourist, walking along the tremendously fortified walls and visiting the Crusaders city, now buried under more modern layers of Akko. Fred aptly likened the whole town to filo dough, built up upon countless layers of history. Many of Akko’s narrow streets are covered and vaulted, and all are full of garbage, cats and scruffy little kids. Its golden era long since forgotten, Akko nevertheless retains an aura of mystery and intrigue like no place we’ve been so far; not at all what I normally picture when I think of Israel, and therefore testimony to this new-old country’s incredible richness, as well as its resistance to pigeonholing.

3 November, Akko to Ginosar, 56km (f)

Andrew stated that his biggest worry in Israel was that I’d be struck by Jew in Homeland Syndrome. He’d seen so many of his Jewish friends go off to a kibbutz and come back ragingly religious and now wondered if I’d fall under the spell of the holy land. I’d dismissed the idea summarily, everything I’d heard about the place told me that I could hardly travel there much less live here. Admittedly the magic of the first day nearly won me over. We’d been granted such a wonderful welcome. This was, after all, the first place where my religious background got me through customs faster than normal.

Our goodbye to Akko was encapsulated in a little lecture we got from our hotelier Anwar. I think there was a moral to the little discussion but it was hard to find. It might have been that hatred is bad and harmony is good, the U.S. is war mongering or that he prefers frosted to corn flakes. I am not sure how we escaped his ramblings, but I am glad that we did, even though it was raining sporadically. Luck was with us; once we set out nary a drop fell on us on the way.

The main highway to Tiberias was a beautiful four lane affair with no traffic and an enormous shoulder. Each bus stop was full of teenage soldiers toting M16’s hitching rides. The girls seemed to have the best luck getting picked up. Andy and I both admitted finding the girls with guns sexy and the boys scary. Lunar rocky landscape bordered the road broken by occasional groves of olive and pine. Villages set back from the road were ugly cement blocks and I counted it as good fortune that we didn’t have to ride through them.

We turned off the main road in favor of a calmer one just in front of a roadside falafel stand and lunched with yet more gun toting youths (GTY’s). The break came just after a grueling hill that brought us to nearly 400 meters above sea level where we started. This would be our first day ever, starting from the ocean, where we would have a net descent for the day. The sea of Galilee sits 200 meters below sea level. The one happy thought I carried with me as I nearly barfed up my pita climbing the last hundred meters is that there would be a hell of a downhill somewhere.

Unfortunately the first meters of our descent were of the hand-maiming, perilously steep and highly trafficked variety. Once we finally cleared the big village and curvy streets the road opened up and so did we. I love the sound of my rear hub’s bearings whizzing as the wind buffets my face. On the way we passed Arab school children waiting for busses and playing in the street. Many of them were engaged in some form of violence against one another, slapping, hitting, throwing stones and shouting. They shouted at us as we passed and one even tossed a very small stone at my front wheel.

Before long we had found the lake and were riding along looking for our tourist attraction du jour. The ancient boat of Galilee was found ten years ago in the tidal waters of the lake and was now being documented and restored. Dishonest tour guides told the unsuspecting travelers that it was Jesus’ boat. We went down to see the boat before seeing the movie and found Jerome Hall, an American, working diligently on her. Jerome told us later that a tourist nun had asked him for a little chunk of the boat upon hearing that her savior had ridden in it.

Jerome had been hired to document the boat and was in the process of putting little numbered pieces of tape every five centimeters upon her withering hull so they could use a laser something-or-other to aid in the process of documentation. We found Jerome suspended in a gondola over the boat in a refrigerated room toiling away. Jerome would prove to be our best ally over the next days.

Somehow, while seeing the boat and movie about her it had become nearly dark. We decided we’d have to find a place to stay nearby to avoid riding in the now dusky light. We had two choices within a few meters of the boat. The Kibbutz Inn or the Kibbutz Hotel were our choices and we chose the cheaper, more rustic and infinitely more interesting Kibbutz Inn. As a young Jew in America I’d managed to avoid the kibbutz experience, now was my chance to live it vicariously. Jerome escorted us over to the office where we paid for our room and made a rendezvous for dinner with Jerome. He’d agreed to show us around and take us to the bomb shelter-housed disco for a little down-home entertainment.

The dining room at the kibbutz was a cross between "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest" and the foreign exchange students cafeteria in a college dorm. The sprawling room had but a few middle-aged kibbutzniks eating alone at huge tables talking to themselves and three tables full of strapping European youths who volunteer as slave labor at the kibbutz. One other faction worth mention was the group of contract workers from Thailand who kept to themselves. The Thais are imported in to farm bananas, and are found all over Israel. The volunteers welcomed us warmly and Jerome told us of the intricacies of kibbutz life.

Before the disco we went over to the hotel for a beer where Jerome filled us in more on his life in Israel. The kibbutzniks are fiercely independent lot. Most won’t even acknowledge Jerome on the kibbutz. The ones that do are the outcasts. The volunteers come mostly from Europe and are rarely of Jewish decent (at least on this kibbutz). They make a hefty ten shekels a day and live in squalid dorm room conditions. The volunteers do have an active social life that centers around their disco and pub.

Jerome warned us that you couldn’t fart in your room at the kibbutz without the entire 800 residents knowing about it within a few moments. Case in point was the story of the two Dutch volunteers exploits the day before their departure for a little vacation. Consistently everyone told us we should avoid playing pool in the volunteers’ pub and we should be especially careful of the dreaded "12" ball. Apparently Jonah and Mike got more than a little drunk and decided to play the game naked, driving the more modest 10-shekle-a-day laborers from the bar and to their bunks. Even the stout-hearted ones left promptly when Jonah expressed his desire to put one of the balls where the sun doesn’t shine. Aided by Mike who wielded a cue-stick, the ball disappeared. Night we made it out to the pub a young handsome Swede demonstrated that the only way to handle the dreaded implement of Jonah’s desire was with a ladle pilfered from the cafeteria.

The disco proved to be less entertaining, but not without interest. Now that Israel has had a relatively long peace thanks to Rabin (no thanks to Netanyahu) the bomb shelter near the cafeteria is only used for the volunteer’s dancing pleasure. They descend twice each week into an abyss of black light and wailing music to forget their week’s work. Surprisingly few of the kibbutz members made it down. We proceeded our visit with a stop at the hotel bar to share a few beers with Jerome. By the time we got there Jerome had loosened up and was telling us all of the need-to-know facts of kibbutz life. He was anxious for us to meet Gumpel, the one kibbutz member who was a disco regular. An audiophile and dancing madman, Gumpel shook his funky groove-thing for all. Conversation with Gumpel was impossible, first because the music was so loud and, second, because Gumpel’s ears were stuffed with cotton.

Our stay at the kibbutz was no bargain. Our claustrophobic room set us back more shekels than any room in the previous three countries. There was no room the second night so we were prepared to leave, but the raging rain storm pinned us down. Jerome stepped in and was good enough to share his room with us. It all worked out well until the kibbutz staff realized the next day we’d stayed without paying. The aging deaf desk clerk berated us when he learned we had stayed. He and the kibbutz mafia tried to extract more shekels out of us then we had paid the previous night. We refused until they came back with a more reasonable offer.

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Jerome, our man from Galilee

Gumpel grooves in Galilee


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Entrance denied at St. Peter's pad

Goin' to the Golan

5 November, Ginosar to Neve Eitan, 84km (a)

The skies looked slightly less threatening today, so we set off, hastily deciding to take the long way towards the south, all the way along the Sea of Galilee (actually a lake). Jerome and others had told us that the Jesus-oriented sites on the lake’s north shore were must-sees. Capernaum, supposed site of the house of Saint Peter, disappointed us, however, a sorry excuse for a couple of souvenir stands and yet another opportunity for American pilgrims to throw themselves into religious ecstasy. Signs at the entrance informed us that visitors needed to be wearing long pants, so we donned our dorky-looking rain pants since they were the most accessible. Other tourists must have wondered what weird sect we belonged to that called for such unusual matching outfits.

More satisfying was the hyrax we saw scampering into some bushes. Allegedly a cousin of the elephant, it looked more like a woodchuck or an agouti to us. Not too long out of Capernaum we crossed a river and entered the Golan Depths –I figured we’d view the more famous Heights from below--, territory seized from Syria in the Six Days War of 1967 and annexed by Israel shortly thereafter. I thought about how close we were to Syria and the implications of the brewing conflict between the US and Iraq, and as if on cue the mountains above echoed with the unmistakable sounds of mortar blasts. Huge plumes of smoke rose from the side of a slope directly above us, and I told myself that it must be a simple drill on a firing range. A little further we passed a sort of parking lot for tanks, but restrained ourselves from taking any photos, not in the mood to argue with any teenagers toting AK-47s.

The road here was beautiful, mostly following the coastline of the lake, occasionally climbing to give us amazing views. From one such vantage point we watched a storm batter the other shore, proceeding rapidly in our direction. Thankfully we found shelter in an abandoned beach pavilion, where we hung out for an hour or so while the storm passed over us.

When the rain stopped we got back on our bikes –a big mistake, since the sky opened up shortly thereafter. Never had we ridden in such rain; it was like swimming underwater. While we probably rode less than a kilometer to the first shelter (an empty guard shack at the entrance to a kibbutz), the apocalyptic downpour had totally soaked us. Demoralized by the deluge, I began to think about alternatives to biking through the Middle East. We could ditch the bikes in Tel Aviv and drive or bus through Jordan and Egypt; or we could just take the Nissos Kypros back to Athens and head home a month earlier than planned…

Fortunately, the rain subsided before I could develop these ideas any further. And a roadside falafel improved my mood tremendously. I still hadn’t decided on an itinerary for our plan southwards, whether we’d ride into Tel Aviv or not, where we’d cross into Jordan, etc, etc. Our initial plan was to head up to a nature reserve and hostel near a place called Avula (we referred to it as "arugula"), but neither of us had the will to push up any big hills, so we checked out Beit She’an. The town’s situation at one of the three border crossings between Jordan and Israel seemed serendipitous. We could ditch our bikes here (thereby avoiding any unnecessary inclines), make a quick tour by bus to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and cross into Jordan from here a few days hence. Of course, that’s not the way it worked out, but it seemed a good idea at the time. And Pessie, the woman who managed the kibbutz we stayed at, was amenable to all of our ideas. She could keep the bikes "no problem", and even called her friend who worked at the border –only a couple of kilometers away—to see if we could bring our bikes into the kingdom of Jordan. A heavily accented "no problem" was her answer once again; we were sold, even though the place was a dump (and an overpriced one at that). Surrounded by barbed wire and mired in mud, Kibbutz Neve Eitan looked all but abandoned, just a collection of forlorn concrete shoe boxes reminiscent of a circa 1960 self storage facility. Pessie explained that the kibbutz had only 100 members now, and rented out most of the housing to newly-arrived immigrants. Sure enough, on my quest for a garden hose to rinse off our muddy bikes, I ran into an obvious Russian dude working on his rusty old car.

I changed my mind in regards to itinerary on my way up the nasty hill into town, in search of dinner. I thought Plan A would work out fine if it rained again tomorrow, but if the sun was shining it would really be more fun to ride through the West Bank and check out Jericho, recently granted Palestinian autonomy and the lowest city on the planet. When I came back with our meal –still more falafel—Fred had already packed his bag for the bus ride, and was clearly displeased with my indecisiveness. A beer, dinner, and the "X-files" on t.v. brought him around, though. As per usual, he was putty in my hands itinerary-wise, my idea of the perfect traveling companion. (Andy’s itinerary was later putty in the Jordanian border official’s hands…. - F)

6 November, Neve Eitan to Jericho/Jerusalem, 86 km (f)

The sun was shining and I was again in love with riding. About ten kilometers into our ride my heart left my chest. Huge signs declared that there was a check point ahead. The sign was correct for soon we saw gun turrets, barbed wire and armored vehicles on the horizon. The last billboard before the checkpoint declared that "no individual tourists allowed in the west bank". I envisioned turning around and going back to Neve Eitan. As we passed into the checkpoint, as if to underscore my every fear, the guards motioned for us to approach them and said, "Come and talk to us."

Immediately I realized it was a different scenario altogether when they pulled out a bottle of coke and a few filthy glasses and offered us some. One had bicycled extensively after his three years of service in the military and truly was interested in our bike trip. He gave us council and advice and demonstrated the "blow-your-f***cking-head-off" caliber machine gun.

We were waved on and soon found ourselves amongst the friendly Palestinians. Children waved and shouted at us. Cyclists raced to catch up with us and ride along with us. It was the first time since the USA that I’d felt that welcome riding anywhere. It was shocking to find everyone so friendly after we’d been warned about how "dangerous the Arabs" are by many Israelis.

After a few hours we entered Jericho, the "oldest continuously inhabited city of the world" according to the signage. Proud Palestinian soldiers and police stood underneath their flag guarding their border and city. Entering the old town we were accosted by virulent souvenir hawkers who somehow convinced us to buy "Arafat" hats at exorbitant prices. Before long we reached the old town and scarfed a few falafels while a little boy donned Andy’s helmet and tried to convince us that it was a gift. One kind young man escorted us to the taxi stand and helped us negotiate a trip to Jerusalem. By cabbing it to Fanatic City we’d avoid riding up a dangerous highway at sunset and ascending over 1000 meters. Our ride took us just short of the city on the hill. The last three kilometers convinced me we’d made the right decision. The drivers were as fanatical as the religious zealots. Tired and ill prepared for finding a hotel we floundered searching for a place to stay. We settled finally at the plush YMCA. Its deco-arabesque halls were our home for the next days.

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West Bank welcome

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From atop damascus gate

Jerusalem (f)

After checking into the swank YMCA and singing a few choruses of the Village People’s famous song (of course while pantomiming the spelling of the acronym) in the lobby we hit the town. Andy remembered a quarter of the new city that housed walk streets, pubs and restaurants so we headed directly there. Unable to find the queer bar he’d remembered from his past visit we stumbled into the hippest bar we could find. Overrun by teenage American bimbos and sultry Israeli teenagers it was just a little too much to handle. We’d actually been lured in by the two-for-one deal they’d advertised, thinking that we would each have a beer and go. There was only one problem when the bill came. They had charged us for two beers. Andrew’s WASPish parsimony alarm went. We argued that we had ordered the two beers during happy hour and expected to pay for one. The barmaid explained that we had missed the fine print and that we were entitled to a second beer each for no extra charge, but would have to pay for two. Indulging our BikeBrats signature "waste-not-want-not" sensibility we without hesitation ordered our second beer.

Having consumed two beers and ridden in the midday sun we found it easier to head back to our hotel than walk in the old city. That would have to wait for the next day. We did have one very important stop on the way to the "Y". A friendly little all-night-grocery with an astounding selection of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream bars. I slept soundly with visions of Cherry Garcia in dark chocolate dancing in my head.

A sunny cool and windy day greeted us the next morning. We got an early start and headed for fanatic city. Intending to begin the day with a benign walk on the city walls we were disappointed to find that the attraction was not yet open for the day. Instead we headed directly for the epicenter of Jewish fanaticism – the western wall. Entering the site was not unlike getting on an airplane. Metal detectors and x-ray machines were employed to determine if we had any menacing weapons. Once inside we figured that we were nearly the only unarmed folks in the place. Police and soldiers swarmed amongst the faithful and occasionally there was an intersection between the two groups. Several pistol-toting prayers were huddled at the wall.

The area in front of the wall is reserved for those engaged in prayer. A section on the right is for girls and the left for boys. On the men’s side a talmudic scholar was studying in the fierce morning sun. As he read an American couple quietly motioned to one another, stood on the barrier and took a video over his shoulder. "Look Bob, he’s actually reading Hebrew," she seemed to say.

Andy and I decided to go in for a closer look grabbing cardboard kippahs and heading for the wall. Two meters into the area while snapping photos Andrew (strangely not me…) was accosted by a black caped and hatted dude who looked like father time. He asked him in German if he was Jewish. "No," he replied, "but he is," pointing to me. A minute later tfillim had been "bound for frontlets between my eyes" and upon my arm and I was reading the Viahafta with our new rabbi friend. All the while Andy was snapping photos wildy. While I unbound myself and said a mourner’s kaddish for my dad Andy was becoming the belle of the ball of the wailing wall. He’d met another rabbi who took him into the room where they store torahs and other books, then showed him he was hiding a tracheotomy tube under his beard and appealed to his charity. On the way out of the holy site Andy came upon an idea for a photo essay -- "Fred’s fabulous path through fanatic city." He’d capture me engaging in the ritual of the three primary religions in Jerusalem. I wasn’t sure what all it would entail, but I agreed and we set out to see more of the city.

From the wailing wall we wanted to ascend the city walls and make our way from the Dung Gate to the Damascus Gate atop the fortifications. It turned out that there was no way to mount the walls legitimately near the wailing wall, so we climbed around a barricade and went up anyway. We figured we’d pay for the attraction when we reached Jaffa Gate. It surprise me that we were in competition with no one as we made our way there. When we arrived at our goal we found that there was no exit, and that this sector of the walls were closed. We faced having to backtrack or find another way down. Craftily we climbed down into the courtyard of a museum without anyone being the wiser.

As planned we now bought a ticket and headed for the Moslem quarter. When we reached the Damascus gate we were shocked by the rush of humanity entering the city through the gate. Many of which were wearing full Moslem regalia including dishrags and robes. Which brings us to an important point. Throughout our trip through Israel to this moment we’d distinguished people as "pot holders" (those wearing kippah) and "non-potholders". In Old Jerusalem almost every Jew had a pot holder or some type of head covering. In fact, almost everyone of every religious sect or another aside from (and sometimes including tourists) was wearing some form of religious drag. Jews in ridiculous black suits and sidelocks, Moslems in dishrags and robes (or chadors for the females) and Christians in whole ranges of different silly outfits. The Christians get the prize for the most hilarious ones. Some in sack cloth, nuns in cone-head outfits and Orthodox priests wearing more gold than the Pope decorated the streets of the city. All of this led us to tag Jerusalem the "fanatic city."

Over the Arabs flooding the old town Israeli soldiers stood guard with their machine guns. One seemed about to fall asleep as he watched over the faithful coming to pray. This day, Friday, is the most important one for both the Jews and the Arabs. Now the faithful Moslems were on their way to the temple for the all-important midday prayer. Consequently heathens like us were not allowed to see the mosques so we headed for Via Dolorosa.

Nearly our first, and by far the most tumultuous stop was the church that marked (I think) where Jesus began his march to be crucified. In the courtyard an industrious young camera-toting Arab had brought an enormous cross that tourists could sling over their should and pose with for a fee. Andy asked me to grab it and smile for the camera as his owner said in a quiet voice "don’t touch the cross." I acted as though I did not hear him and all seemed well until he ran over to us and tried to take our camera. I snatched the backpack from him and said, mistakenly, "f*** you." This caused the end of the world in his eyes. He was speechless with anger and shock. We took advantage of his paralysis and ducked into the chapel to figure out a game plan while he mustered his forces outside. I was hoping to find another exit from within the chapel, but was disappointed to discover that the only way out was past our pissed-off friend. Fight and flight both seeming impossible options, I collected my wits and tried to soothe the savage beast. I explained that I didn’t hear him warn me about the cross and thought that it belonged to the church. I was "sorry that I touched his cross." Furthermore, I was enraged that he would try to take something of mine, my camera, and understood and empathized with his anger over the cross. He too should understand and empathize with my anger over the camera. After all, it was just a big misunderstanding and we should just shake hands and go on with our day. I offered my hand, he accepted and I walked out of the church a little shaken and surprised that it was that easy to escape that situation.

Our next stop would be the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. A huge and strange structure that looks as though it was decorated by a schizophrenic. First built by St. Catherine it houses the holiest places of the various sects of the Christian religions. Simultaneously managed by these sects it feels more like a Halloween maze than a church. The holy sites within the church were identified by visions and are not confirmed absolutely in the historical sense. Andy photographed furiously as I ran the gauntlet through the church, kissing, touching and praying at various places in the shrine.

At one spot I stepped out of queue to have a look at a fabulous gold encrusted mosaic. It was in a microscopic chapel within the church that housed and even smaller chapel inside, supposedly marking the exact spot of Christ’s tomb. We were just about to enter the smallest chapel. As I was about to rejoin Andy in line a huffy busy-body tour guide accused me of trying to jump the line in front of him. Feeling very holy and mighty from our day’s tourism I reminded him that this was a holy site and that he should watch his tone or step outside much to the embarrassment of his German patrons who bid him to shut up.

All of this religious drama exhausted me. I couldn’t wait to get the heck out of Old Jerusalem. We made our way back to the hotel for a nap. That night we decided that we needed a stiff dose of Americana and decided to see a movie. Air Force One seemed just the ticket. We took a taxi to the movie finding it in a nasty little shopping mall. The refreshing thing about the experience was that in contrast to the afternoon we didn’t see a single pot holder. It was a relief to be away from religious zealotry. We joined the throng of cell phone toting Israelis queuing up for the film. At first I thought the clerk at the door was asking me for my ticket. I handed it to him gleefully and he said, "no, I want to know if you are carrying a gun or other weapon." I couldn’t help but wonder why they restricted them here? Had someone gotten too enthusiastic once and shot up the screen during an action thriller?

9 November, Jerusalem to En Gedi, 84 km (a)

It was still Shabbat in Jerusalem. The place was like a ghost town. Before leaving for Tel Aviv, we had one important mission to complete, namely the Muslim section of our photo safari. We had been turned away at the Dome of the Rock the day before, and had only three precious photos left. To get to and from the famous shrine, we had to run the gauntlet of the Arab souk along the Street of the Chain not once but twice. All I could think of was that we’d be leaving this bizarre place the following day, thank you Jesus, Jehova and Allah. Once inside, we learned that the Dome, the nearby mosque and the Islam Museum charged a hefty admission, which we grudgingly paid in order to see the insides of these exquisite buildings. Outside in the enormous courtyard, I posed Fred genuflecting towards Mecca and washing his feet in a fountain. Mission accomplished, we rushed back to our hotel to dump off our camera before heading to Tel Aiv.

--A big mistake, it turns out, for what followed was one of the more photogenic days we’ve experienced. I ought to have asked Amit and Sharon what they had planned for us…

Since buses don’t run on the Sabbath, we had to take a service taxi, squeezed in with a bunch of other infidels. Sharon picked us up at the bus station, and took us back to his place, pointing out the buildings he had worked on as an architect along the way. In the car with him was the incomparable Adam, whom I haven’t seen since his infancy in Paris. Now Adam is a singularly enthusiastic young Israeli who learns Arabic at school ("I can learn English from the Internet", proclaimed the ten-year-old). When we arrived at their flat in central Tel Aviv, Amit informed us that we’d have to stay until the evening, since there was going to be a memorial/demonstration for second anniversary of Rabin’s assassination. We nodded our heads in agreement and voiced dismay over not having brought the camera.

Our intellectual Israeli friends took us out to a fantastic lunch by the seaside in Jaffa. Adam remained energetic throughout, and talked freely to everyone we met, seemingly confident in the adult world. After lunch, Fred got on Sharon’s computer to update our site while Sharon advised me on our upcoming trip to Egypt’s Sinai. Amit meanwhile informed me that Claire and William of Chalonnes would be in Jordan in just a couple of days, which corresponded precisely with our plans. Soon thereafter friends arrived from Jerusalem with their kids in order to attend the demonstration, only a couple of blocks away. From a table at a café downstairs we watched a human river pour into Rabin Square. Everyone sitting with us were visibly excited, saying how this would be the largest demonstration in the history of Israel.

There certainly were a lot of people, many of them carrying anti-Netanyahu placards. A huge video screen had been set up so everyone could see the speakers. Of course the many speeches were unintelligible to us, and after a couple of hours of standing among the throngs, we eagerly volunteered to babysit back at the flat. Still, I’m glad we were able to participate in such an event, and to have viewed it from what felt like the core of Israel’s intelligentsia.

The next morning featured an exhilarating 1500 meter descent to the shores of the Dead Sea, though getting out of Jerusalem involved some pretty unpleasant climbing. Mt. Zion was definitely not designed with biking in mind. Lining the long slope downwards were Israeli settlements resembling prisons, plus several large Bedouin encampments. Just how this latter group manages to eke out an existence remains a mystery to me, since there appeared to be nothing for their animals to graze on in the barren hills.

Predictably, it was baking down in the valley, where my altimeter read -600 meters. The over-oxygenated air is supposed to give one bonus energy, but you could have fooled me. I thought we’d be fried into bikebrats jerky by the sun before reaching any civilization, and a pair of truly diabolical hills along the shore of the Dead Sea nearly did us in.

Before searching for a place to settle for the evening, we had our requisite float in the Dead Sea, whose extreme salt and mineral content push you towards the surface. We bobbed like corks for a while, noticing how soft the water made our skin feel.

As it was already getting late, we set about the task of finding beds. The hostel up the hill was full except for yucky dorm beds, and the "field school" a vertiginous couple of hundred meters higher had a gloomy (and overpriced) feel to it, so we headed back to the campground at the beach. Fred was a little leery at first, but it turned out to be fun. For one thing, we met a couple of other cyclists. Dave from Holland came by as we were setting up our tent. Scruffy-looking with dirty long hair and lacerated skin, he was obviously drunk out of his mind, barely able to maintain his balance. As we set up our tent he complained of his traveling mates, telling us over and over again that while he was a "serious cyclist", they were just a bunch of hacks. More interesting was Renon (or something like that; we’ll call him Rodent, since he kind of looked like one), a little Israeli with long dark hair and a brand new deluxe mountain bike, and an outfit from outer space. "It cost me 5,000 dollars" he told us, and explained how he had just quit his job in Tel Aviv to travel for as long as he could. He, too, had come down from Jerusalem that day, but via the wadis, or gulches. He demonstrated for us his system, and how he could jump over rocks even while carrying a heavy load on his back. Rodent said he was on his way to the Rainbow Gathering a hundred kilometers south, and that this was merely a preliminary trip before departing for India next month. What is it about Israel that makes it such an ideal breeding ground for eccentrics? We seem to have met more rugged individualists here than anyplace else we’ve been.

There’s not much to do at Ein Gedi campground after 5pm, when the sun sets. After chatting a bit with other campers (avoiding our drunken Dutch friend, who was probably passed out by now), we slipped into our seldom-used nylon home and a deep, deep sleep.

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Rodent models his fall attire

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Our host in Ein Yehav, Ehud

10 November, Ein Gedi to Ein Yehav, 107km (f)

Golden light flooded the Jordan River Valley, reflecting off the oily-looking waters of the Dead Sea and rousing me from my slumber. It was deadly quiet in the campground when I shuffled off to the showers, leaving Andy dreaming of hyraxes and agoutis. I was surprised to find Rodent drying himself off with a sarong there. I’d expected him to have found some very "natural" place to pitch his tent as he had told us the night before. In fact he’d met his friend the lifeguard of Ein Gedi and crashed in his trailer home on the beach that night. He asked to ride with us that day and we agreed to meet after breakfast. I couldn’t help but wonder what a day with our armored friend would be like.

When Andy arose, we closed up camp, went for another swim and headed for breaky. Somehow on the way to the miserable camp restaurant he got me to admit that I actually like camping. The Dead Sea waters must have somehow made me delirious. Whatever I liked about camping was soon forgotten when we reached the canteen. It was a sad affair filled with not-so-refined Eastern European travelers and their screaming offspring. On top of it all the cuisine was just a bit below my standards (that is saying something after nine months on the road….) While we were eating, another cyclist arrived, headed directly for the WC and began bathing himself. A few minutes later we were exchanging stories with him and poking at our nearly inedible breakfast. He’d already ridden three hours this morning though it was still before 9 a.m. Ben the Brit told us of his honeymoon cycling trip and how it might have been a mistake. We procrastinated for a long time before leaving, both finding Ben entertaining and dreading leaving because we both had the sniffles.

Once on the road the warm sun baked us and the wind shoved our tired butts along. Places to stop are few and far between in this inhospitable desert. We finally came upon a truck stop around lunch time and helped ourselves to yet another roadside falafel. Though our appearance must have been horrific, we served some purpose for our fellow diners. Our sweat and dirt caked bodies drew the thousands of desert flies to us and away from their food. One of the other patrons was a weird and scary looking paramilitary dude with a sidearm and fatigues. He strutted around nervously in his uniform that bore no markings of the Israeli military or police.

Riding another 30 kilometers or so with the wind at our back we enjoyed the ever dramatic desert scenery until the weather began to change. Andy was eager to ride onward, but I sensed that this would be more than the average shower. We managed to make it to another roadside canteen just in time to watch the air turn to liquid, the roads to streams and the desert to mud. We were advised to wait it out and offered a night’s shelter at the local moshav (a close cousin to a kibbutz).

The rain brought others seeking shelter. The restaurant filled slowly with moist hippies who had been hanging in a wadi celebrating a Rainbow Gathering. We shared dates and stories with them while waiting for the rain to pass listening to the "Hair" soundtrack. Just a few moments into the storm the roof of the restaurant gave way and water started to steam into the lounge. Employees frantically re-purposed trash cans into buckets, moved merchandise and squeegeed the floor.

Ehudi, our young host (who we knicknamed agouti) and general manager of the place, was busily arranging our evening while we sipped coffee. He’d found a place for our bikes and arranged for a ride to the moshav. On the way to our little apartment Agouti explained that a moshav differed from a kibbutz in that everyone has their individual businesses and derives some of their own revenue from them as well as contributing to the benefit of the larger community. It is more of a socialist as opposed to a communist arrangement. Most of the families also benefit from the assistance of Thai workers who are paid 1020 shekels each month in addition to room and board.

There was a little confusion that evening when it came time to pay. First, we’d thought that the price quoted was for the two of us to stay in the room together. It turned out that they expected us to pay 85 shekels each. That seemed exorbitant. Second, though we’d been told that we’d be alone in the room, our host told us that a woman and her two children would share the little place. We were less enthusiastic about the evening now and took corrective measures. We bargained our host down further, but still had to deal with our roommates which would prove to be a daunting task. She stormed into the kitchen, said nary a word to us and made us feel generally unwelcome. Until she needed a favor she said nothing and did not even introduce herself until I interrupted her request to borrow shampoo. Fortunately we slept soundly after her children stopped crying and dreamed of a sunny day on the road.

11 November, Ein Yehav to Elot, 135km (a)

This morning we were treated to a glimpse of life on the moshav, and I’m glad it was only for one day. We got up before dawn in order to catch a ride with Ehud and his crew back to the highway restaurant up the hill. Nobody sharing the van with us said much on the way there, and none seemed too enthused by the prospect of going to work. I learned that our carpool companions, plus just about everyone else in the community, worked at least six days a week, from dawn until well past sunset. When I noticed some of the same Thai workers I’d seen coming back from the fields last night I asked Ehud about them and he said every family employed "six or seven" imported laborers, each earning only 1020 shekels (about $300) a month.

Soon we had been reunited with our bicycles and were munching on croissants and coffee generously provided by Ehud, who told us how he had abbreviated his stint in the military by disagreeing with his superiors. With dismay we looked out the window and noticed the flags flapping outside. During the night the wind had shifted 180 degrees. It would be a long 130 km to Aqaba.

The desert takes on a wholly different aspect when riding against a headwind. While it had seemed beautiful and magical yesterday, it looked harsh and endless today. In my head I kept calculating how much further we had to go, and each kilometer felt longer than the previous one. After a couple of hours of difficult pumping, KM 101appeared like a mirage in the distance. A ramshackle compound in the middle of the vast desert, this kibbutz-cum-rest stop/roadside attraction (complete with live monkeys) looked uncannily like the set from "The Road Warrior." Any variance from the desiccated wilderness and baking sun take on an oasis appearance, though; it was as if we had stumbled upon Shangri-La. We scarfed down falafels and ice creams (despite the fact that it was still before 10am) and queried an American who worked there about the road ahead. I meant to ask him what possibly could have led him from Bellingham, WA to such a god-forsaken place, but he seemed very occupied with an overabundance of chores.

After another hour or so of pedaling, we had reached the day’s summit, at 260 meters above sea level, and the wind had somehow managed to shift to our favor again. The road ahead of us was a sight to behold. It descended gradually, sublimely, towards the floor of the vast valley of Wadi Araba, making for almost unsurpassed cycling ecstasy.

We stopped for lunch at another oasis, this one a considerably more stylish kibbutz, complete with manicured lawns, a gleaming restaurant, and a swimming pool. We toyed with idea of spending the night in this beautiful place, but regretfully decided to press on towards Jordan. This brat was ready to experience a new country.

Climbing into my saddle, I noticed that my front tire had gone flat, the tire I’d been riding on since Pensacola, almost eight thousand kilometers ago (converting me to a steadfast believer in Continental 2000 tires). After putting on a new tire supplied by brother Mar-tay and trashing the old one with a twinge of nostalgia, we were back on the road, screaming southwards with the most delicious tailwind I can recall since our ride out of El Paso. I thought how we’d be following this tack all the way down the Sinai coast and smiled. Forty-some k. later we turned a bend and saw the Gulf of Aqaba. In my head I could hear Peter O’ Toole as T. E. Lawrence pronounce the ancient port’s name as if it was the Promised Land, and I couldn’t help feeling the same. It glistened in the distance, a gathering of white buildings stretching along an aquamarine sea, in stark contrast to the Vegas-esque megahotels of Eilat, on the Israeli side of the border.

Alas, Aqaba was to remain just out of our grasp for the time being. When we arrived at the border, the Israeli police warned us that Jordan wouldn’t let us in with bikes. Feeling invincible after such an invigorating ride, we decided we’d try our luck, gambling the hefty exit tax levied by the Jewish State. –A losing bet, it turns out. While the Jordanian immigrations officer at the other side of the no-man’s land was sympathetic to our cause, nothing we could say or do seemed to help. He called his supervisor a couple of times, to no avail. Our bikes could only come in if they were in a box or in a truck, and he had no place to stash them at the border either. "Try the other side," he suggested (meaning Israel), "they’ll be able to keep your bikes."

Fat chance. The Israelis welcomed us back by subjecting us to a thorough search through all of our belongings, even though they knew full well that we hadn’t even made it into Jordan. No one was around to give us and our bikes a lift, and leaving our bikes anywhere near the border proved "impossible." So it was back up a rude little hill (and straight into the wind which had blown us down here).

We still had a good hour and a half of daylight. Still eager to make it to a new country, I proposed to Fred that we bike into Egypt, just ten kilometers away. He convinced me that this was madness, thinking it wiser to search out a place to ditch our bikes for a week while we tour Jordan by motorized transport. I gave in to this idea, and –unbelievably—we found a place to stash the bikes almost immediately, in the bomb shelter of a nearby kibbutz. Tired, dirty and frustrated, I walked into the kibbutz office and asked if we could leave our bikes there, expecting to be rejected. But friendly Alexandro from Argentina surprised us. "Sure," he said, "here’s the key."

We stripped our bikes of what we thought would be essential in Jordan, and headed back to the border, on foot this time. "Welcome to Jordan," said the many employees at the border, leading us through a bewildering maze of Arab bureaucracy. Before being released, we had to submit to a customs inspection (where they confiscated all our food), change money, buy visas, declare our computer, and show our passports to seemingly dozens of guys in uniform whose exact jobs remained unclear. After the dead-serious efficiency of Israeli immigration, the Jordanian approach to immigration (and life in general, it turns out) had a haphazard, low-tech feel to it. We had definitely entered another world.

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Elusive Aqaba

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